What we just saw gilds legend and legacy. What this man just accomplished needs no parade of adjectives and superlatives because the raw, simple truth of it speaks louder and better: LeBron James just had the single greatest individual NBA Finals championship performance in the league’s 70-year history, and that is why the Cleveland Cavaliers just did something that had never been done in overcoming a 3-1 series deficit.
James’ 29.7 scoring average was the highest ever on a winning team. His 208 points, 79 rebounds and 62 assists marked the first time anyone produced such high minimums in all three categories in a Finals. He became the first player to lead both teams in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in any one playoff series. Kyrie Irving had a big Finals, too. Yes. But it was LeBron who pointed a thumb at his shoulders and said, “Climb on.” It was LeBron who carried a team and a lifted a city.
“Cleveland, this is for you!” he had shouted, hoarse, when it was over, as all of northeast Ohio rocked and swooned in merry bedlam back home, reveling in that city’s first major sport title since 1964.
More unexpected was the scene inside the arena in Oakland that LeBron had turned quiet.
You saw Golden State fans dressed in Warriors blue and gold standing and clapping. Not cheering. But applauding in the way that conveys a respect that is impossible to withhold because it was so overwhelmingly earned. Applauding in a way that shows an appreciation for a wonderful feel-good story one must be pretty callous to not feel good about.
I wondered, watching that, if any of the same evolution of feeling might be happening back in Miami, where even fans still upset about the way LeBron left the Heat two years ago perhaps had to give grudging credit to a man they had just seen justify the reason he left if not the way he did it.
Let’s not be hypocritical, Miami. Let’s remember. It wasn’t that long ago. Cleveland burned LeBron’s jerseys in effigy when he left for “South Beach” in 2010, and we all the while scolded and mocked Cleveland as James was reaching four consecutive Finals with the Heat and winning two championships here. We delighted to remind Cavs fans that LeBron’s decision had been proven to be a smart one.
Now, after two years of Miami animus against James for his daring to leave us, we must at least now admit he has done exactly what he wished to do in returning home. Once again, his against-grain career decision has been justified. Once again, a player who is basketball-smart and business-smarter has proved he has shaped and steered his own epic career rather brilliantly.
James also has shifted narratives and reopened conversations with the force of his performance, the astounding impressiveness of it.
The mocking “can’t win a championship without Dwyane Wade” disappeared into the ether, for one, but more importantly we see a shift in James’ place in the context of today’s NBA and its history.
Most of the past two seasons, and perhaps as recently as when Cleveland trailed these Finals 3-1, LeBron was the past-his-prime superstar at age 31, a man who had irreversibly ceded to Stephen Curry the ceremonial honorariums of face of the league and best player on the planet. Well, LeBron just played like a man laying claim to both titles again, a man wanting back what’s his. Maybe Miami got the heart of his prime, but there is no question now that prime isn’t over yet. That heart is bigger than we thought.
The living ghost of Michael Jordan and the conversation about greatest player ever also is rekindled, that door not flung open wide by Sunday night, maybe, but at least pushed ajar. Because if you are making an argument for James as someone who has or might yet surpass Jordan, his 2016 playoffs and especially the past week would be a fair starting point.
Many would say LeBron might be one or two more championships from overtaking Jordan by any consensus. That seems reasonable and fair. So we pivot to his future, to what’s next for a man who will be a free agent in 10 days and have his choice of where to go and what uniform to wear next season.
LeBron and Kevin Durant will be the big-two free agents, Durant perhaps more coveted because he is four years younger, but the gap surely narrowed by what James just did on a Finals stage he owned.
Betting odds are that, anticlimactically, they will stay in Cleveland and Oklahoma City, respectively. But that’s no fun. It denies us our dreamy speculation.
The possibility of Miami landing one or the other of the two “whales,” Pat Riley’s word for a landscape-altering free agent, is neither great nor infinitesimal. Riley is an elite recruiter not to be underestimated — that we know for sure.
James could be thinking “been there, done that” in terms of a return to the Heat. But didn’t ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith report LeBron might consider returning to Miami if the Cavs won the championship?
I noted Heat owner Micky Arison Tweeted his congratulations to LeBron and the Cavaliers on Sunday night. I was surprised a little olive-branch emoji was not attached.
ESPN reported that LeBron’s “secret motivation” the past two years was provided by Miami, by people in the Heat organization who told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life to leave. It is impossible not to believe Riley was one of those people. The report said LeBron felt hurt and underappreciated that Miami made him feel guilty to consider leaving, even selfish.
But the weight of that in any decision of his to possibly return to Miami is zero.
Remember this is the same LeBron who returned to Cleveland even though owner Dan Gilbert had written that bitterly vitriolic open letter blasting James, calling him a traitor.
James goes where his business sense tells him, or where he thinks his next trophy and ring are waiting.
But he also has the power and freedom, at 31 and a now three-time champion, to go where he wants to, period. Hey,maybe he decides to go to L.A., play for the Clippers alongside his close friend Chris Paul, bask in the biggest media shine he has had, and be closer to the epicenter of the television/movie career he is cultivating. Who knows?
What we do know is that this man’s track record should have earned our benefit of doubt by now.
No matter what LeBron James’ next decision is, assume it’s the right one.